The New Masters of War

Jon Foro on October 25, 2018

Likewar.jpgWere you looking for more reasons to worry about the future, or the present? LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media will fuel your nightmares. P.W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking’s treatise travels well beyond the disinformation and fake news we’re all now familiar with (right?), addressing the ways the internet and our social networks will be deployed in actual war: recruiting terrorists, inflicting sabotage remotely on a vast scale, and even Matrix-grade reality manipulation.

Backed by over 100 pages of notes, LikeWar is sober, deeply researched, and still compulsively readable. Comparisons to On War and The Art of War are apt, if likely optimistic—given the accelerating pace of technology, any reasonable futurist can expect to see their predictions become obsolete in three to five years, or maybe two. But even if the specifics change, the principle holds: Disruption is here, and we are not ready. It’s frightening, but as individuals, we are far from helpless. As Singer and Brooking conclude, “Social media is extraordinarily powerful…. Yet within this network, and in each of the battles on it, we all have the power of choice.”

Here Singer and Brooking share the events that led to LikeWar, as well as the challenges of writing a book about a topic that mutates by the hour. LikeWar was a September 2018 selection for Amazon's best books of the month.

On LikeWar

by P.W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking 

LikeWar is a story about how the internet changed war and politics. It is also a story about how war and politics changed the internet. Because the internet is always evolving, our book also had to evolve with it.

The spark for the book that would become LikeWar came to us over five years ago, amid three remarkable but seemingly unrelated events. Each was a story of how the new technology of social media and the age-old practice of war were crossing in new and unexpected ways.

The first was conflict fought between the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and Hamas militants. On the ground, the fighting was costly, but indecisive, like so many of the spates of conflict that had come before in the region. But the struggle had also spilled into a new place, the social media platforms that were taking on a heightened importance in our lives. On Twitter, for instance, a new breed of online combatants exchanged more than 10 million messages about the war, each trying to spin the narrative toward one side or the other. Yet, nearly all of the people shaping which message won out lived thousands of miles from the physical battlefield. What was even more notable is that research would show that these battles online, decided by clicks from afar (including our own), were having a real world effect. The pace and scope of Israel air strikes targeting changed by nearly half, dependent on the ebb and flow of what was called the first “Twitter War.” The generals and politicians had been making their decisions while watching what was happening online. This was something new.

The second event was a horrifying terror attack by the terrorist group Al Shabaab. Members of the groups attacked and occupied a popular shopping mall in Kenya, murdering 67 people and leading to a three-day siege by police. Throughout the attack, though, the terrorists were online, their messages and updates available to anyone in the world, including us. Al Shabaab thus became the primary information source for the battle it was fighting, releasing a steady stream of updates, including cellphone images taken by the jihadists inside the mall. By comparison, the Kenyan government was slow to release public updates. This led to another twist. By controlling the narrative, the terrorists then exploited their dominance. By spreading false information online, they exaggerated their success and inspired wider fear and panic. It was another taste of what was to come.

The third event was when the U.S. military allowed deployed service members to use social media in the field. This was a big win for the troops, who could now stay in continuous contact with their friends and loved ones in a way previously unimaginable. But it also created strange new connections, never before possible. A U.S. soldier could find and “friend” the very people that they were fighting. In turn, those enemies could reach not only the soldiers in the field, but also reach into the “homefront” in new way. We were entering a strange new world—and it inspired us to map its new dynamics in a book.

For the next five years, we dove deep into this world. We studied the history of communications and propaganda; the evolution of journalism and open-source intelligence; the bases of internet psychology; social network dynamics and virality; the evolution of Silicon Valley corporate responsibility; and the applications of machine intelligence. At the same time, we tracked dozens of conflicts and quasi conflicts in every corner of the globe, all playing out simultaneously online. We cast our net wide, scooping up everything from the spread of YouTube battle clips to a plague of Nazi-sympathizing cartoon frogs. We interviewed experts ranging from legendary internet pioneers to infamous “reality stars,” weaving their insights together with those of viral marketers and political hacks, terrorist propagandists and preteen reporters, soldiers and generals (including one who may have committed some light treason).

We visited the offices and bases of the U.S. defense, diplomatic, and intelligence communities; traveled overseas to meet with foreign government operatives; and made trips to both brightly colored offices of social media companies and dark labs that study the tech of war. Meanwhile, we treated the internet as a laboratory itself. We leapt into online battles just to experience the fight and see where it would lead. We downloaded apps and joined distant nations’ digital armies. We set traps for trolls, both to learn from them and have some fun at their expense. Then we found ourselves being enlisted into the fight in new ways, asked to advise the investigations trying to figure out how other nations had attacked the United States with these new weapons, as well as aid the U.S. military information operations tasked to fight back. We even found ourselves the targets of “friend” requests from U.S. government officials who didn’t exist—and whose puppet-masters worked out of St. Petersburg instead of Washington, DC.

As we conducted our research, new events swirled around us. The Islamic State (also known as ISIS) emerged and its forces conquered cities across Syria and Iraq, as well as the American imagination—driving a greater fear of terrorism than even in the wake of 9-11. Their most powerful weapon, though, was not a gun or bomb, but social media, which they skillfully used both to terrify distant peoples and draw some 40,000 foreign recruits. Our scope widened and we explored not just how ISIS did it, but also the role that social media was playing in conflicts that ranged from the fighting in Ukraine to the drug war in Mexico. And then came the presidential election of 2016.


P.W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking

While the world stood in shock at the election of Donald Trump, we recognized how all the same dynamics (and indeed many of the same players) that we had been researching had just helped propel America’s most influential social media personality into the White House. Just like it had reshaped the story of war in Ukraine or terrorism in the Middle East or gang life in Chicago, it was clear that social media had been central to Trump’s successful rewriting of the rules of what it took to win an election. He’d used it to court attention, to spread falsehoods, and to assemble a massive online army that overwhelmed the old models of reporting and campaigning. We realized LikeWar wasn’t just the story of how social media had changed war. It was also about how social media had changed politics—with the line between war and politics ever more blurred.

With each passing month, there were new stories, interviews, and revelations to weave into our work. It soon became clear that the 2016 U.S. election had also been the target of a wildly successful Russian intelligence operation, premised on the same social media tactics we’d been studying. Then in August 2017, violent white supremacists rallied in Charlottesville, Virginia, in a march that shook the American political system and left a young woman dead. Here too, their extremist movement had been organized and sustained by online connections, blending into the ones used in wars, elections and even Russia’s information operations.

By early 2018—as we were wrapping up the manuscript—the heads of social media companies were being hauled in front of Congress, while Silicon Valley engineers were building “war rooms” to safeguard global elections and arbitrate whether generals could use their networks to push genocide or not. All this also made it in the book. Truth be told, by this point, we were expecting it.

In the end, LikeWar took us on a journey that was much like the internet itself, connecting ideas, people, and places that wouldn’t have ever come together otherwise. And, just like the internet, we hope that the resulting mix is simultaneously informative and entertaining, and maybe a little bit scary, too.

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